The Trouble With Being Cross-Centered
We hear the term “Cross-centered” a lot these days. It is an understandable expression. In a time when our Lord’s precious death (1 Pet. 1:18–19) is termed “cosmic child abuse” by alleged evangelicals, we could use a revival of love for and preaching about our Lord’s sacrificial death on the Cross. But some churches and denominations want to do more. They want to position themselves as stressing Jesus’ crucifixion even more than his glorious, bodily resurrection. They see the crucifixion as the top point of the Gospel and everything else subordinated to it.
I believe this well-intentioned perspective is mistaken. I will offer three basic theses on the relative emphases of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection to show why. I will also show the practical implications of over-emphasizing the crucifixion. We must love and glory in the crucifixion, but it is not right to be “Cross-centered.”
Three Staggering Theses on the Resurrection of Jesus
Jesus’ resurrection, like his crucifixion, saves us. We all know that the resurrection is a central fact of the Gospel (1 Cor. 15:1–8), but it is clearer to many of us how Christ’s death saves us than how his resurrection saves us. In some cases, we get the idea that the prime role of the resurrection is simply to confirm the deity and Messianic role of Jesus (Rom. 1:1–4). This fact is true as far as it goes, but if we think this way, we might fail to grasp in what specific sense the resurrection should be part of the Gospel at all. After all, the fact that Jesus is God as well as the Messiah is not a distinctively Gospel truth — you can believe it and still not be a Christian.
Moreover, despite the many theories of the atonement, it is easy to understand how Jesus’ death saves us — primarily by his suffering on the Cross the penalty for sin that is due us (1 Pet. 2:24). He also destroys the power of sin, Satan’s stranglehold on us, a view often called Christus Victor (Heb. 2:14–15).
But how does his resurrection save us? If we see the Gospel as designed principally to address the issue of the penalty of sin, we might scratch our heads as to the Gospel significance of Jesus’ resurrection. If however, we recognize a “fourfold salvation” (A. W. Pink) — salvation not just from the penalty but also from the power, pleasure and presence of sin — we will get a better idea of the resurrection’s role in saving us.
Paul tells the Romans that if in union with Jesus’ death we ourselves have died to sin, it no longer enslaves us (6:2). But the power actually to walk in the new life is an effect of our union with the resurrected Lord (6:3–12; 8:10–11). Jesus’ death paid the penalty for sin and broke its judicial power in us; but had he remained dead, we could not be saved. The massive significance of this fact should not be missed. Paul says that if Christ is dead, we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). This is as much as to say that Christ’s penalty-erasing sacrifice on the Cross by itself is insufficient to save us.
It is not enough that our sins are paid for, for us to be saved. Had Jesus merely commended his spirit to his Father (Lk. 23:46) but remained bodily in the grave, the Son of God could have resumed his pre-incarnate existence, and, theoretically speaking, his death would have atoned for sinners, but none of them could have been saved. Atoning death is necessary for salvation, but not sufficient. Resurrection is no less necessary. The reason that our Lord’s death is insufficient of itself to save cuts to the heart of the issue. The very purpose of salvation is man’s victory over sin — existential victory, not just judicial victory (Eph. 1:1–4; Tit. 2:14–15; 1 Pet. 2:24) — and that victory is, as we have seen, a direct benefit of union with our Lord’s resurrection, not just his death.
Another way of putting this is to say that persevering obedience is no less a Gospel gift than justification and forgiveness of sins. If, however, we believe the Gospel is predominantly about forgiveness of sins and only derivatively about persevering obedience, we might fail to grasp the significance of the resurrection to the Gospel. Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the tomb to secure the salvation of an obedient, world- and sin-conquering people (2 Tim. 2:11–12). This is what baptism into the crucified-resurrected Lord secures (on which, more below).
We might also understand this fact better if we realized that the resurrection is not simply an extension of the redemptive work of the crucifixion, whose overwhelming glow the resurrection reflects. The truth is more nearly the reverse: the resurrection is the grand crescendo toward which Jesus’ redeeming ministry pressed.
The Lordship of the resurrected Christ is the central theme of the Bible. The great theme of the Bible is not “Jesus saves,” but that first Christian creed, “Jesus is Lord.” Peter’s sermon at the first post-resurrection Pentecost confirms this truth. Peter sees in Jesus’ resurrection-ascension the fulfillment of the promise to David that of his descendants God would establish an eternal rule in the earth (Ac. 2:30–33). In this (resurrection-ascension) way, God “made this man Jesus … both Lord and Christ” (v. 36). On this basis the Jews who collaborated in our Lord’s murder, under potent Spirit conviction, begged to know what they should do. Peter’s response was, “Repent, and be baptized” — that is, visibly attest your faith in the risen Lord. The Lordship message generates the Gospel.
Paul says much the same thing in the beginning of Romans (1:1–5). Jesus, David’s royal seed (Lordship!), was declared to be God’s Son by his resurrection and the message of obedient faith in this risen Lord for all nations was committed to Paul. Then we learn (1:16f.) how individuals get in on this Global Lordship Plan.
Resurrection is at the heart of the Lordship Gospel because in the resurrection (and resultant ascension) Jesus was authenticated and qualified as God’s mediatorial ruler of a world called to submit to an obedient faith (Rom. 15:18–20; 16:25–26). Because of his humble obedience that took him to the Cross, God has exalted the risen Lord to whom every knee will bow (Phil. 2:5–11).
“Jesus saves” because God has rewarded his obedient faithfulness in his sacrificial death with the resurrection power of universal Lordship. The crucified and risen one is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19:15–16).
All who swear fealty to the reigning King who shed his life’s blood for the world will be pardoned and justified (credited with Jesus’ own righteousness) and granted a persevering faith that will lead them to victory through the great battles of this life (Rom. 5:18–19; 6:12–19; 8:31–39).
Individual salvation is a benefit of incorporation into the crucified and resurrected Lord. But it is the reign of the resurrected Lord that is fundamental.
Christians can today encounter the crucified Lord only in the mode of his resurrection existence. This truth sounds a lot more arcane than it actually is, but I want to spend a little time developing it, because it more than any other shows why the resurrection is arguably the most pivotal aspect of the Gospel.
We know that before his incarnation the Son of God existed eternally with the Father (Jn. 1:1–4). Like the Father and Holy Spirit, the Son was pure spirit. He was God in the same sense that they were — and are. In eternity past, there were three divine Persons, spirit Beings, yet one God.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he entered a new mode of existence. He was no less the Son of God, but he was the Son of God in a different way. Because his deity joined (though was not confused with) humanity as Jesus of Nazareth, it was necessary that God’s Son surrender some of the prerogatives of deity (not deity itself, mind you), because man is not God (Phil. 2:5–8). For example, he was not omniscient (Mk. 13:32). He could be tempted and get tired and sleep and even die. In fact, he was human in every way we are, though he was not a sinner (Heb. 4:15–16).
These are not characteristics of God the Son in his pre-incarnate state; his earthly life was a different way of being. We should thank God for this fact. Otherwise, God’s Son could not have saved us (Gal. 4:4).
But — and this point is often missed — Jesus entered a third (and final) mode of existence in his resurrection, or, perhaps more accurately, in his resurrection-ascension. He was neither pre-incarnate nor merely incarnate, but resurrection-incarnate. He was the Son of God in a different way than in both his heavenly pre-incarnate and his earthly incarnate modes of existence. Jesus himself was transformed when he rose from the dead (Richard Gaffin’s brilliant observation). When Jesus died, he died in weakness; but he was raised in power (1 Cor. 15:42–45).
We have clear instances of this resurrection-ascension Jesus. Peter preached at the first post-resurrection Pentecost that the one whom the Jews had slain is no longer in humiliation but ruling from the heavens on David’s throne (Ac. 2:29–39).
This is the Jesus that Stephen the martyr saw as he was poised to die: the ascension-resurrection Jesus standing on the right hand of the Father, in great power and glory and victory (Ac. 7:54–60).
Likewise Paul’s conversion experience highlights the “new Jesus,” whose brightness blinded Paul and whose booming voice threw him from his horse and rendered his companions speechless (Ac. 9:1–9).
Then, we see the resurrection Jesus in his full regal splendor in the Book of Revelation: his flaming eyes and oceanic voice and sun-blinding countenance (Rev. 1:12–17). This is the incarnate-resurrection Jesus with the power of life and death, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who makes war with his enemies and crushes them in his blinding might (Rev. 19:11–21).
This is most emphatically not the Jesus of his humiliating, incarnate state. It is the same Jesus in his being, but he has a different way of being.
In other words, Jesus’ earthly existence was not his resurrection existence.
It is the same Jesus, but he is a changed Man.
This leads to a rather exciting, if jarring, conclusion: the mode of Jesus of the Gospel accounts is not the mode of Jesus that we encounter today. We have no access to the Jesus of his earthly, pre-resurrection sojourn. When we were saved, we were united to the resurrection Jesus — not the Jesus that the first apostles encountered in ancient Israel. Because Jesus is a changed man, and because we are united to him in his resurrection (Rom. 6:3–5), we are changed men and women (v. 4, “walk[ing] in newness of life”). That is how God changes us. God changes us by having changed Jesus.
What are the implications for Christians? When Jesus died, he was bound by sin. Sin had power over him — not his sin, of course, but ours (v. 9). Before Jesus rose, sin and death had power over him. Jesus was enslaved to the power of sin —ours. He carried our sin, our grief and sorrows (Is. 53). His life was one of weakness and illness and weariness and tragedy and loneliness — the life of sin bearing. Sin (our sin) which he carried during his earthly life, had power over him.
This is the earthly Jesus, the Son of God whom we read about in the Gospels. This is the life of Jesus all the way to the Cross and to the tomb. If you want to know the “life of Christ” according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it was preeminently a life of weakness, grief, burdens, illness, hardship — on the Cross it was even a life separated from God the Father, who abandoned his own Son, the Son who carried our sins (Mt. 27:46).
The momentous teaching of Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5 is that in that empty tomb 2000 years ago, Jesus left that life behind forever. Jesus was transformed.
To elaborate: when Jesus rose from the grave, he abandoned that humble, earthly way of life for a new life. He was sown in weakness; he was raised in power. He gave up his life of sin bearing and weakness and loneliness and defeat for a life of power and joy and communion and victory. The old Man Jesus became the New Man Jesus. Jesus had an old man and a new man (Paul’s language), just like we do. And the old Man Jesus is gone forever.
Paul makes much the same point in 2 Corinthians 5:16–17, where he is talking about the resurrection. He says that even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, that is, in a natural way, yet now we do not know him that way. We cannot know Jesus as we once knew him. He has changed, and we have changed.
If you want to know the Jesus that now exists, read the book of Revelation, not the Gospels. In Revelation, he is the conquering King, progressively beating down the old dragon (Satan); punishing his enemies on earth who are at war with him; and delivering his people, who love and obey him. He is not just the Lamb who had been slain but the Lion who flexes his authority over the earth. He is the Jesus at whose holy, horrifying presence John fell down as dead.
This Jesus, not the Jesus of the Gospels, is the Jesus alive today.
This fact has further staggering implications for Paul — and us. It means that since Jesus has a new mode of existence, a new life, we do also. We are united to him, so when he died to sin, we died to it also. When he rose to righteousness, we rose also. Why is it necessary to be united with Jesus? Because that is God’s way of destroying sin! (Read Rom. 6:6 carefully).
Understand, therefore: we can longer encounter — no longer have a personal relationship with — the crucified Lord. We can only encounter and relate to and love and befriend the crucified Lord in his resurrected state. What kind of existence does Jesus have today? Can he die (v. 9)? Can his life today be filled with sin bearing, sorrow, loneliness and weakness? No. Neither must ours. That is Paul’s point in Romans 6.
Jesus calls us to take up our cross daily and follow him (Lk. 9:23). Paul says that he dies daily (1 Cor. 15:31). And in passages like Matthew 10:38, 2 Corinthians 1:5–7, 4:10, Philippians 3:10, and Colossians 1:24, we are informed that our present life must include suffering, just as our Lord’s earthly life did. But for the Christian, there can be no death without a resurrection, just as for Christ there could not be. Every death entails a resurrection, including our future physical death and future resurrection.
But our resurrection is not merely future. In the present life, we cannot die every day to sin and self without also being resurrected to righteousness and power and hope and joy and glory and victory.
Christians do not live the “crucified life”; they live the resurrection life. When we suffer, when we are lonely, when we are ill, when we are weak, we appeal to Jesus, but only to the Jesus who lives today in constant victory over loneliness, suffering, illness, weakness. In other words, we cannot encounter a Jesus who knows only loneliness, suffering, illness, weakness,because that Jesus no longer exists. We can only encounter a Jesus who has defeated all of these. And if we are united to him, we have also defeated them. We simply must live a life of resurrection — dead to sin, alive to Jesus (vv. 11-12).
There is simply no other Christian life.
The wife of the best man in my wedding is a remarkable woman. I have known her for 40 years. Months after they were married, she and my best man were T-boned by a drunk driver. He was thrown clear, but her backbone was crushed. She was paralyzed and has been a paraplegic for over 30 years. I knew her when she was a teenager in full bloom and health. I cannot know her that way anymore. She is a new and different woman. Her life has been transformed.
In the same way, I cannot know the “old” Jesus that walked the earth. I can only know the “new” Jesus that rules in Heaven (1 Cor. 15:47-49).
To those who want to know Jesus in his pain and suffering and agony and weakness, who want Jesus to join you in wallowing in your self-doubt and failure and weakness, who desire for him to be your partner in misery: You’re too late; you missed him; you’re 2000 years too late. That Jesus has been transformed. He is now the Lord of glory, not the Jesus of the earth.
When we come to Jesus for empathy and care and help (Heb. 4:14-16), we can come only to Jesus the Victor, not Jesus the Victim. He can identify with our weaknesses and sorrows ands temptation, but he cannot identify with us in defeat — only in defeat swallowed up in victory (Heb. 4:14–16; cf. 7:26–27; 8:1–2. 7–13; 11:4–40; 12:22–29). He can no longer identify with the three Hebrew boys who might perish in the fire; He can only identify with three Hebrew boys who are victorious over the fire.
Your way of thinking and mine must be dominated daily by this one fact — the Lord we love and serve is the risen Lord, the Lord of victory and power and hope and joy and transformation. There is no other Lord.
Jesus is incapable of commiserating with a life of defeat. He can only lead us from defeat to victory. Jesus knows no other way.
Too many Christians live as though Jesus is still buried in the ground. But that Jesus is gone forever. There is no other Jesus to love and serve. The risen Lord is the only Lord there is. The victorious Lord is only Lord there is. The joyous Lord is the only Lord there is. The powerful Lord is only Lord there is.
It is this Lord to whom we are united.
Paul’s point: there is no other Christian life possible except the life of victory and joy and power and hope and worldwide transformation (1 Cor. 15:56–58; 1 Jn. 5:4).
For this reason it may be most prudent not to say that we are “Cross-centered.” It is better to say “Lordship-centered,” because this Lordship is the key to the resurrection, just as the resurrection is the key to the Gospel.
It is the risen Jesus whom we serve, and there is simply no other Jesus.
 The term “Cross” is not always equal to “crucifixion” in the Bible. Sometimes it is shorthand for the entire Gospel. When Paul writes that he gloried only in the Cross (Gal. 6:14), he did not mean to say that he excluded a huge part of the Gospel, including the resurrection, in his glorying (1 Cor. 15:1–4). Even when he says that when he ministered among the Corinthians, he wanted to know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2), he obviously had not limited his message to the crucifixion. 1 Corinthians 1–2 makes clear that his contrast is between the simple Gospel that he preached and the sophisticated paganism of the surrounding classical culture at Corinth.
 Oscar Cullmann, The Earliest Christian Confessions (London: Lutterworth Press, 1949), 23.